As the temperature hit 100, The Gateway's Olympic fountain looked like a beach. Hundreds of people in swimsuits lounged nearby on towels. Children ran through the water wearing everything from street clothes to just droopy diapers.
"It's a tradition. We come every summer. We visit the planetarium, and then we spend a few hours at the fountain to cool off," said Angela Eatough of West Jordan, who brought her four children.
When asked if she ever wondered if disease-causing bacteria could spread as the water is reused after dripping through the full diapers seen on some children and the dirty feet of dogs and humans, she said that thought never occurred to her.
It is, however, occurring to the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.
While water in The Gateway fountain is voluntarily chlorinated and tested, health department officials say they will likely soon require all fountains that allow people to play in them to chlorinate, regularly test water quality, undergo inspections and obtain before-construction reviews of designs to help ensure the fountains will be sanitary.
Terry Bybee, the Utah County Health Department's environmental health director, said his agency has no plans for a ordinance that would make public fountain water be treated because it hasn't been an issue. "If we had complaints of E. coli, fecal matter, dogs swimming in the water or something like that, we would respond to those complaints," he said.
In Salt Lake County, Brian Bennion, director of the health department's Bureau of Water Quality and Hazardous Waste, says the three fountains attracting the biggest hot-day crowds in the county at Gateway, Liberty Park and Red Butte Garden now voluntarily test and chlorinate. He wants to ensure that future fountains take such steps, too, as they are becoming more popular.
"People are using them like free, mini water theme parks," Salt Lake City Parks Division director Val Pope says about the "Seven Canyons" fountains at Liberty Park. "We actually see school bus loads of kids come just to play in them. They have become a destination attraction. It's huge."
Tracy James, property manager at The Gateway, says of its Olympic fountain, "It is an attraction not only in summer but also during the winter. There have been people playing in it when it has been 7 degrees below zero. . . . There have been a lot of engagements in it. There has even been a wedding performed on the outer edge of it. It has a draw to it."
Stephanie Barton, director of events and visitor services at Red Butte Garden, also says the fountains are increasingly popular. "We see a lot of moms with kids in the station wagon pull up. They are in swimming suits, and we know exactly where they are going, especially on days that it is so hot."
Bennion said health departments nationwide are moving toward regulating interactive fountains because of the bacteria growth found in the recycled water that most big fountains use. "It's been a topic at conferences we attend and in scientific journals," he said. "We're updating our code now, so it is a good time to look at that."
And he adds his bureau has received some complaints and questions after people saw children in non-aquatic diapers using fountains, along with hordes of dirty bodies and the trash they sometimes drop.
For example, when questions arose about the Liberty Park fountains in 2000, city officials did some testing and found so many germs and debris that water there was deemed unsafe for human contact.
"When the fountain was first designed, it was meant to be a visual feature rather than an interactive feature," Pope said. "It was not designed for the public to use. But we found as we went along that it was hard to discourage that."
Pope said the city tried a variety of ways to manually chlorinate the water to kill bacteria. "But it didn't work. Whenever we had a large influx of people on a particular day or event, it was just more than we could handle."
The city ended up closing those fountains briefly. It approached the O.C. Tanner Foundation, the fountain's original founder, to help it add a $150,000 filtration system.
"We now have a chlorination system as big as any swimming pool in the valley," Pope said. "We meet swimming pool standards. If the public is going to use it, we definitely want to make sure it is safe."Comment on this story
Barton also says the water is also chlorinated and tested daily at Red Butte, where the children's fountain was designed to be interactive. "We do ask that people have toddlers in a swimming diaper for sanitary reasons," she said.Bennion said, "We want to be more proactive to ensure that any fountains built in the future do the same. If they use recycled water, there is the opportunity for contamination. We are looking at updating the code to make sure that they take the steps needed to keep the public safe."
Contributing: Jeremy Twitchell